By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We are living in strange times. Since the era of Covid began, the world has taken a bizarre turn. Until then, we could usually say, “Olam keminhago noheig,” world events follow a basically predictable, natural, course. However, ever since then, everything that has occurred has been bizarre, unpredictable and unexplainable.
First, masks were mocked. Now, every store and locality has rules mandating wearing them. Initially, we were told that upwards of two million people would die in the United States from the pandemic. Of course, every life is important, but now, four months in, the toll stands at 145,000.
The economy was humming along, doing better than ever, hitting historic numbers, and President Donald Trump had a lock on being reelected. The way polls are projected now, he will lose in dramatic fashion and the country will be forever changed.
The Democrat candidate is clearly past his prime; that’s no secret. He barely ventures far from his home, reads a speech from his teleprompter every now and then, answers no questions, and offers nothing new. He is controlled by ultra-leftists beholden to Bernie Sanders and his bunch. He has promised higher taxes and legalizing all illegal immigrants, and he checks off every progressive box on the checklist. Yet, polls show that he will win election as president of the United States.
It is strange that people who ought to know better from our community are already hedging their bets, promoting him with the mistaken view that should he be elected, it will make a difference to him and the anti-religious, anti-Jew, anti-Israel, anti-capitalism gang that will be in power that some misguided Orthodox Jews supported him.
It is strange that a drug that cures people of the disease is suppressed and those who lobby for it are mocked and vilified. Dying patients whose families begged that their loved ones be treated with HCQ were turned down, because the drug fell out of favor only because the president promoted it.
It is strange that large stores were allowed to open, while small shops were forced to close, and their owners and employees were forced on to bread lines to feed their families.
Schools were forced to shut down, robbing children of the education so vital to functioning and succeeding in this world, though it is known that young children are not affected by the virus.
The younger the person is, the less likely for that individual to become ill or to be affected by the virus. Chances of mortality increase with age. Yet in a bizarre move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, portrayed heroically by the media, forced nursing homes to bring Covid patients into their facilities and thus cause older people to die needlessly.
People were brought into hospitals suffering from shortness of breath and left to die, without being cared for or fed.
It is strange that shuls and botei medrash were forced to close and then were allowed to open only if attendance was kept to a bare minimum, while allowing similar venues to open to larger crowds. Funerals and outdoor weddings were curtailed, yet when nationwide protests sprang up over police brutality and systemic racism, attendance was encouraged by the very same people who shut down other outdoor activities.
The rise of the protests in itself is a strange phenomenon. Very few black people are killed by police, yet since the killing of George Floyd, systemic racism has been accepted as a given and people across the country are falling over themselves to redress a wrong that has been addressed, and progressively improved since the Civil War. Months later, the protests and riots continue, though they go largely unreported. Federal enforcement officers seeking to calm the havoc are referred to as “stormtroopers” and “the Gestapo” by the nation’s highest authorities.
It is inexplicable that the country that stands as a beacon of freedom for all nations of the world, welcoming refugees from all over and allowing them to grow, prosper and occupy positions of power, overnight becomes vilified by many of its own citizens as a bulwark of evil conceived in sin.
A basically kind and generous country where people are generally judged by their merits is now almost universally portrayed as an evil empire. Anarchists are praised by the media, and riots are presented as peaceful protests.
It is strange how fast leading centers of commerce, industry, arts and culture have been shut down and fallen out of favor. The streets of Manhattan are empty, as are its stores and offices. Billions of dollars of real estate values evaporated into thin air, seemingly overnight. Malls are dying, as their stores are going bankrupt, one famed brand after the other.
People who thought they were set for life died unexpectedly of Covid. People who felt that their business could weather any storm never thought that a virus could come along and wipe them out.
People who were on an upward trajectory were cut down to nothing and sat on line waiting for a Shabbos Box.
People who had it all figured out discovered in very depressing ways that they didn’t.
In this country, politicians and medical professionals sought to flatten the curve and get the number of sick people who would become infected down to a manageable number. They promised that when that would happen, restrictions would be lifted and life would return to normal. The curve was flattened, but life hasn’t returned to normal and is not likely to for at least another few months, economic and mental meltdowns notwithstanding.
In Eretz Yisroel, the leaders thought that they could stop the virus dead in its tracks and engaged in a full-fledged war against it. They shut everything and everyone down, thinking that they would be in control. It didn’t work and the country is still closed to non-citizens. The same prime minister who was riding high in the polls is now viewed as an incompetent leader who can’t do anything correctly. Daily protests against him grow in size and his coalition partners stab him in the back with no fear of retribution.
Is it not strange?
DERIVING COMFORT…AMIDST PAIN?
This Shabbos, we read the haftorah from which Shabbos Nachamu derives its name. Yeshayahu Hanovi proclaims this week, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami, yomar Elokeichem,” the most comforting message known to man.
The novi calls out to us and proclaims, “Nachamu, the pain will soon end. Nachamu, the golus will soon be over. Nachamu, be comforted on past tragedies. Nachamu, a bright new day is dawning.”
How do we derive comfort if the catalyst for our pain is still here? The Bais Hamikdosh is not yet rebuilt and so much of our world is in churban. There is so much healing that is required. Machlokes and problems beg for resolution. A pandemic rages across the world. So many are without jobs and income. Children don’t know if there will be school come September, and nobody knows when Eretz Yisroel will open up. How are we expected to experience nechomah in the absence of redemption?
How do we get nechomah?
Since the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, we have experienced one tragedy after another. Tisha B’Av is the repository of some 2,000 years of Jewish pain and suffering. It is the day on which we mourn for all that was and now isn’t, for all that wasn’t and we wish was, for all that our people have lost in the Diaspora.
When we sit on the floor saying Kinnos, we mourn the churban of the first Bais Hamikdosh, the second Bais Hamikdosh, the Harugei Beitar, as well as the calamities that befell the Jewish communities of Europe one thousand years later during the First Crusade. We remember the Jews who were persecuted during the Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the gezeiros of Tach V’Tat. We are reminded of the seforim that were burnt in Paris in 1242.
We sit on the floor and think of the Jews who were shipped all across the world throughout the ages. Just as they finally became comfortable in one country, they were sent away, refugees, on a quest to begin living again in yet another strange, unwelcoming land.
We mourn on Tisha B’Av for the millions of Jews who were killed and maimed physically and mentally during the harrowing century that just ended.
And we do this all on Tisha B’Av, because all our problems emanate from this sorry day, the day of the churban.
For three weeks, we pondered the churban. For three weeks, we concentrated on all the tragedies that have befallen our people since the destruction of the Botei Mikdosh and the forced exiles that followed, rendering us homeless. We refrained from music, clean clothing, shaving, haircutting, and beard trimming. Every time we looked in the mirror, we were reminded that we are still living out of shopping carts in a place far from home.
The yearning for a rebuilt Eretz Yisroel, with Yerushalayim at its heart, the Bais Hamikdosh in its center, giving meaning to our lives and raising us to the heights of holiness, happiness and fulfillment, pulsated within us for three weeks, coming to a head on Tisha B’Av, when we sit on the floor, reciting sad liturgical poems depicting the destruction, emptiness and hardship that have befallen our people.
We sit uncomfortably on the floor, thinking of all the sadness that surrounds us and those we love.
And then, all of a sudden, nechomah is in the air. Shabbos Nachamu is coming. Everyone is happy and cheerful. The music blares, the grill is fired up, the clothing is clean, and life is back to normal. Tisha B’Av and all that it represents are but a distant memory.
How does it happen?
THE HAND OF HASHEM
If we believe that things happen in this world haphazardly, then there is no comfort. If everything is random, then why did this tragedy that I am mourning happen to me? If calamity has no explanation and things just happen because things happen, then how are we consoled when one of those things happens to us, r”l?
If Eretz Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdosh were destroyed because Rome was stronger than Yerushalayim, then what happened is just the way the world operates and my bemoaning the sad result of that war of attrition will not bring back the exalted time and places.
But if everything that happens now and everything that happened then is directed by the Yad Hashem, then whatever occurred happened for a reason. Nothing is random. Nothing happens because it’s just the way of the world. Then it makes sense to mourn the tragedy and seek comfort. Then it is understandable that by mourning the tragedy and understanding why it occurred, we can find comfort and ensure that not only doesn’t it happen again, but the void can be filled.
The very words of Yeshayahu point to the source of our consolation. He proclaimed, “Nachamu, nachamu, ami, yomar Elokeichem,” and the world put on a smile. It is interesting that the novi used the appellation Elokeichem when referring to Hashem. We know that the name Elokim refers to when Hashem is using the middah of din, while the name Yud-Kay-Vov-Kay refers to Hashem when He is using the middah of rachamim.
This is the depth of Yeshayahu’s message of consolation. Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who destroyed the Botei Mikdosh with the middah of din, comforts the Jewish people with that same middah. Just as He then saw fit to demolish, now He has determined that it is proper to comfort and let the people know that there will be consolation and rebuilding, not out of pity and rachmanus, but by right.
In this week’s parsha, as Moshe Rabbeinu (Devorim 5:20) recounts the delivering of the Aseres Hadibros on Har Sinai, he tells them, “Vayehi k’shomachem es hakol mitoch hachoshech v’hahar bo’er ba’eish – And from the darkness you heard the voice [of Hashem] as the mountain was aflame.”
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel 47) asks that there is no darkness when referring to Hashem in Shomayim.
Perhaps we can explain that Moshe was referring to the darkness of this world. The Bnei Yisroel had recently been freed from Mitzrayim, where they were dominated by forces of darkness, and now, as they were free, though in the darkness of olam hazeh, the voice of Hashem burst forth, shedding light on the darkness of this world.
When we perceive the voice of Hashem, it shines light on the obscurity that surrounds and confounds us. When life takes dark turns and we understand that what transpired is from Hashem, our lives become illuminated.
At times, we get lulled into a false sense that things just happen by themselves, by forces of nature. We can forget that Hashem directs everything. We can become dejected and wonder why tragedies occur and why some people have more than others. So, from time to time, Hashem sends us reminders. Things happen that could not be happening by themselves. Things happen that make no sense, following no known rules. Things happen that confound all the experts and turn the world upside down.
Things happen like the things that are happening now. They are inexplicable and defy understanding. Where did the virus come from? What started it? Why were so many mistakes made along the way? Why are medicines suppressed? Why expend efforts to sabotage economies? Why is a socialist revolution being promoted? Why are capable people rendered impotent when battling this virus? Why are losers rising and winners losing? How does that happen overnight? How does a narrative take root spontaneously and grab hold of a country?
ORCHESTRATED FROM ABOVE
It happens because nothing happens by itself. The virus didn’t originate from a bat, shuls and yeshivos weren’t closed by politicians, incomes weren’t lost due to a lockdown, and the Holy Land wasn’t put off limits by an overzealous health department.
Everything that happened was by the Hand of Hashem. He brought us the virus and He closed shuls and yeshivos. He caused everything else that happened over the past four months. We don’t know why. We don’t know what the plan is. We don’t know how it will end. But we do know that it’s not just happening by itself. Therefore, it follows that our actions impact what will happen. If we will mend our ways, if we will take to heart that we can’t take anything for granted, if we do teshuvah and improve the way we daven and learn and treat each other and do mitzvos, then it will affect the middas hadin that is apparent now.
“Nachamu, nachamu, ami, yomar Elokeichem.” You will be comforted, the novi says, when you realize that your actions affect what happens. If we recognize that, and do teshuvah, then we will bring about a speedy redemption in our day.
Current events direct us to appreciate that these things aren’t happening by themselves, but are directed by Hashem, and are directly correlated to the way we conduct ourselves. Let us all do our share so that we will shortly receive the ultimate tanchumim.